Guatemala //

The Pacific coast

A sweltering strip of low-lying, tropical land, some 300km long and 50km wide, Guatemala’s Pacific coast is usually known as La Costa Sur. Featureless yet fertile, the coastal plain is a land of vast fincas, dull commerce-driven towns and ramshackle seaside resorts. The main attraction should be the coastline, though as the sand is black and the ocean has a dangerous undertow this region is not a big draw for travellers. But if you’re yearning for some ocean air, and pick your spot carefully, the coast does have a couple of attractive beaches and some intriguing attractions dotted along the Pacific highway.

It’s certainly not a resort, but the little seaside settlement of Monterrico has an unspoilt charm and is well worth a visit. Here you’ll find a superb beach (a magnet for sea turtles) and a rich network of mangrove wetlands to explore. In the far west, and the twin villages of Tilapa and Tilapita also offer sweeping sands, no crowds and relatively safe swimming.

Several ancient Mesoamerican cultures once flourished in the region, leaving some important archeological remains. The one site in the area that comes close to ranking with those elsewhere in the country is Takalik Abaj, outside Retalhuleu, which displays both Maya and Olmec heritage.

Steadily the Pacific coast is gaining a reputation as a world-class sport-fishing location – offshore waters have stupendous numbers of sailfish, tarpon, tuna and marlin. Iztapa and Puerto Quetzal are the main bases for excursions. The region also has a couple of world-class theme parks on the Pacific slope that represent a huge draw for families.

Brief history

It’s generally held that sophisticated Olmec influence – emerging first in Mexico and spread along the coast – shaped both Ocós and Iztapa cultures, which thrived here after 1500 BC. These were small, village-based societies that developed considerable skills in the working of stone and pottery.

Between 400 and 900 AD, parts of the coastal plain were overrun by the Pipil, who migrated south from Mexico, bringing new architectural styles and artistic skills. They established settlements with compact ceremonial centres and rubble-filled pyramids and traded cacao. The first Spaniards to set foot in Guatemala did so on the Pacific coast. In colonial times indigo and cacao were cultivated and cattle ranches established, but the inhospitable climate and accompanying diseases took their toll, and for the most part the region remained a miserable backwater. It was only after independence that commercial agriculture began to dominate. By the early twentieth century, the area was important enough to justify the construction of two railways to the coast and a line to the Mexican border.

Today the coastal strip is the country’s most intensely farmed region, with entire villages effectively owned by vast fincas. There’s a little domestic tourism but in general it’s agribusiness – palm oil, bananas and sugar on the coast and coffee on the Pacific slope – that dominates the local economy.